nick johansson

Review: Sing (2016)

Sing (2016, USA)
Directed by Garth Jennings, Christophe Lourdelet | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly
Rated PG | Available on Blu-ray/DVD, VOD

It’s hard to deny that 2016 was simply an amazing year for animated film. That much is evidenced by the fact that animation powerhouse and Oscar-hog Pixar released a perfectly fine film that was not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (although to be fair, sister studio Disney Animation Studios had two films that picked up nominations last year). Also not nominated were both of Illumination Entertainment’s 2016 efforts, The Secret Life of Pets and, perhaps more surprisingly, Sing, which, having secured a Christmas release, was clearly intended as an awards candidate for the studio. Despite what some may consider an Oscar snub, however, Sing holds its own amongst the very strong animated field from last year, delivering glimpses of adult wit, a loaded voice cast, and a fantastic soundtrack, all of which adds up to a fun experience for viewers of all ages.

As the title suggests, Sing is a musical that focuses on a singing contest created by businessman Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) in an effort to save his failing theatre from being foreclosed on. From the hundreds of hopefuls who audition for the show, only a handful are chosen: Rosita and Gunter (Reese Witherspoon, Nick Kroll), two pigs from two very different walks of life who Moon pairs together; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla who longs to break away from his troubled family; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk rock porcupine who must choose between her shot at fame and her jealous, egotistical boyfriend, Mike (Seth McFarlane), a jazzy conman who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd; and Meena (Tori Kelly), a shy elephant with a voice made for stardom. When it becomes apparent that Moon doesn’t have the cash to support his promised prize, however, all of the contestants must set their personal lives aside and work together to save the once-great theatre they’ve all grown to love.

Sing marks a turning point of sorts for Illumination, which has primarily specialized in kid-targeted animated films that don’t have much value for older audiences (they are, after all, who we all have to thank for those infernal Minions, as well as the watered-down adaptation of The Lorax). With Sing, however, the studio has crafted a story that can appeal to a much wider audience: there are some jokes that may go over the heads of little ones and themes that can relate to older audiences (not to mention the soundtrack, which is comprised of mostly classic tunes), but the talking animals, bright and colorful animation, sight gags, and upbeat music will keep most kids entertained throughout the film, as well. Because of this, Sing is arguably the first Illumination film that families can sit down and watch together and everybody can be entertained. In an industry where Disney and Pixar are dominating with animated films targeted at all ages, this is an area in which Illumination has to continue to improve because, as Dreamworks found out for themselves, milking one mascot franchise for all it’s worth will only get you so far. In that respect, Sing is a major win for both Illumination and audiences alike.

For all its successes in other areas, though, the obvious cornerstone of Sing is its soundtrack, which is possibly the best soundtrack to an animated film since the first Shrek film. Featuring artists as varied and renown as Stevie Wonder, The Spencer Davis Group, The Zombies, Fred Astaire, Bananarama, Gipsy Kings, Leonard Cohen, Queen and David Bowie, Taylor Swift, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles, the film boasts an eclectic and impressive range of songs. but what stands out perhaps even more is how well they are sung by the film’s main voice cast. It’s an open secret that Seth McFarlane is an accomplished jazz singer, and Tori Kelly is well-known for her stunning voice, but the songs that are sung by Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, and (most impressively) Taron Egerton will likely surprise many viewers. To top it all off, Jennifer Hudson provides an incredible cover of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” that serves as an audio motif tying the film together. Fans of all genres and eras of music will likely find something to love about this soundtrack.

If there is a reason why Sing underperformed during awards season, however, it would be because the story, while fine for an animated musical film, lacks the depth and nuance of some of the other films that were nominated for the Oscar not just last year, but in years past. It’s a fairly straight-forward, familiar tale, and when compared to the philosophical undertones present in nominees like Zootopia, Moana, and Kubo and the Two Strings, it seems somewhat simplistic in comparison. While Sing is a big step forward for Illumination, they still have a few more steps to take before they are able to compete with the other studios for critical acclaim.

Still, there’s a lot to like about this movie. This isn’t just another offering designed to hold kids over until the next Minions movie comes out; Sing is a film that stands on its own merits and is Illumination’s best film to date. It would be nice to see the studio take that extra little step to compete with the likes of Disney and Pixar, and maybe someday they’ll get there. But until then, movies like Sing are more than good enough to at least include in the conversation.